Have you ever wondered how long it takes to learn a language? It can certainly be a long process, but can you speed it up? And just how much can you accelerate it? Can you learn a language in 3 months? 1 month? To answer these questions, I turned to one of my favorite books: The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. This book has achieved enormous success, and it explains how you can emulate efficient workers and learners.
Last updated: 05/31/2023
(How) Can You Learn a Language in 3 Months?
“Learn a language quickly.” Why not? But “Learn a language in three months?” Sounds a little like click-bait…
In my defense, they aren’t my words. They come from Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek.
This falls into the category of books written by successful people explaining how you can become like them. Ferriss essentially argues that true wealth comes in the form of free time. It’s better to work less (do the 20% of tasks that bring 80% of the payoff) to maximize your free time.
But what mainly intrigued me about this book was the author. Ferriss prides himself on his ability to speak 7 languages, which he has taught himself! That’s an incredibly impressive feat. He wrote about this exciting topic in a blog post called “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months.” He went even further when he wrote: “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.”
For those of you who don’t have time to read these articles yourself, I’ll try to summarize them in my own words—and add a few of my own thoughts on the subject.
This quote gets at the essence of his arguments:
It may be possible to understand 90% of a language in 3 months, but to understand 95% could take 3 years. To become completely fluent certainly takes work. It is therefore better to focus first on the 20% that will account for 80% of the result.
Now, neither we nor Mr. Ferriss is claiming that three months of study will get you to fluency. But, if you do it right, you can learn the basics of a language in three months! Here’s what you need to know…
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It may be true that you can understand 90% of a language in 3 months. In fact, Luca made a video showing that it’s even possible to speak a few words in a foreign language after just four weeks of study.
But perfecting your language skills—that last pesky 10%—can be a time-consuming, years-long process. Sometimes it can feel like you’re putting in more effort than your results justify.
So, if your goal is to learn a language quickly, we recommend that you start off by concentrating on the 20% of the language that will help you in 80% of situations. This is the famous Pareto principle. (It’s what our apps are based on!)
Did you know that the 100 most common French words make up half of all French texts?
Fortunately for learners, this means that it would be a waste of time to try to learn all of the words in the French language (at least in the beginning).
Instead, you should start by learning vocabulary based on frequency of use, giving priority to the most common words. (Note: frequency of use is not the same in speech as it is in writing.) Explore these lists of the most common words in French, Spanish, and German. You can also use our apps, which teach you the most useful vocabulary first.
Once you’ve learned the basics, you can hone your vocabulary to more specific subjects that you’re interested in.
For example, if you’re learning a language for business trips, it would be best to focus on vocabulary that is travel-related (transportation, accommodation, dining, etc.) and business-related (negotiation, meetings, presentations, etc.).
Like vocabulary, certain grammatical forms are more common than others. It’s not necessary to learn every form of every conjugation for every verb right away.
For example, I remember studying long lists of irregular verbs in my very first English courses. At that time, what use to me was the verb “to sweep,” not to mention its form in the simple past or its past participle? (Don’t worry, I do clean my house—I just don’t talk about it often!)
To get your point across in the early days of your learning journey, the present tense will suffice. You can always find ways around using the future and past tenses.
All you need to learn are some standard phrases that can be deconstructed. They’ll teach you the rules that apply in 80% of cases. To understand the gist, you really don’t need to know all the forms and conjugations as long as you know the root, or the radical.
By learning things on a need-to-know basis, you’ll get the best results in the least amount of time.
It’s a well-known fact that quick wins give people the motivation they need to continue learning. But if that’s not enough…
Rapid progress will motivate you, but it’s even more important to be interested in the learning materials you’re using.
Since the learning machine from the Matrix does not yet exist, you need a review phase. This phase can be particularly tedious if your learning method is boring!
Give yourself a language-learning experience that allows you to learn more about subjects that interest you. After all, one of the best parts of being an independent language learner is that you have the freedom to choose your own “curriculum”!
For example, if you never read the newspaper in your native language, don’t try to learn a language by reading the newspaper. Instead, find formats you enjoy and topics that you’re interested in. If you love turtles, read blogs about turtles!
For listening comprehension, I strongly recommend watching films, television series, or documentaries in the language you’re learning, with or without subtitles. It’s fun and effective!
There are also special podcasts for language learners.
Abbe made a video about the advantages of using multiple different learning resources. Plus, she gives recommendations for specific tools you might not have thought to use for language learning. She takes English as an example, but the basic principles go for any language. Watch it right here, or on our YouTube channel.
Language-learning methods should allow you to memorize vocabulary and useful phrases with little revision and in as little time as possible.
A lot of research has been conducted on memorization, and there are many very effective memorization techniques that people simply don’t know about.
For example, the spaced repetition system is a highly effective memorization technique. It’s used a lot by people learning so-called “difficult” languages (think Japanese or Chinese) or by medical students, for instance. However, it also works very well for simpler languages.
To find out how it works, read this article.
Before you go, watch this video to speed up the process! Learn Tim Ferriss’s top 5 tips for learning a language quickly. You can also watch it on YouTube.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more learning tips!
Another polyglot who is dedicated to turning his own language learning into a roadmap for others is Benny Lewis. Lewis describes himself as a “full-time language hacker” – as an adult, he’s taught himself over ten languages and is interested in finding ways to make language learning easier and more efficient.
He teaches courses, writes a blog, and records a podcast to share his findings with the world. Generally speaking, his approach focuses a bit more on early immersion.
Lewis’s book Fluent in 3 Months is another great tool for those who are searching for efficiency in their language learning. It’s also motivational and inspiring if you’re someone who has struggled with learning languages in the past.
The principles laid out in this article may seem obvious, but compare them to the utter lack of effectiveness in learning a language in an academic environment!
If you’re trying to learn a language in 3 months, here are the main things to remember in order to position yourself for success:
- focus on learning the most common vocabulary (with audio);
- learn some standard phrases;
- use effective memorization techniques;
- study learning material that interests you;
- find effective tools for reviewing what you learn.
At this stage, you will be learning the basics to get by. After you’ve reached this point, the fastest way to improve your speaking skills is to immerse yourself in a country that speaks the language you are studying.
If you enjoyed this article, I have even more articles on learning methods, memorization, and neuroscience.
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